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The Business Value of Keeping your Hardware and Software Current

IBM Lifetime Champion Pete Massiello talks about the new IBM i TR and the importance of keeping current with hardware and software.

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Today is the day that all the IBM i administrators around the world wait for with anticipation, and it happens twice a year. We know it’s in the spring and the fall, but we never know exactly when during those two seasons. It isn’t on the calendar but Technology Refresh (TR) day is when IBM Rochester releases all the cool new features and functions coming our way. They wrap up these enhancements and provide under a group of PTFs called a TR for short. Today, we will get TR 2 for 7.4, and TR 8 for 7.3.  There will be plenty of newsletter articles, blogs, social media posts and maybe a few videos on what the details are, including Steve Will’s You and i blog post on the subject. 
To me, it’s kind of like Christmas morning, and running downstairs as a kid to see what is under the tree. (I’ll admit it—I’m both a geek and a big kid at heart.) With all the information coming to us, I’m not going to focus this on what is in the release, rather I want to talk about why I think you should be taking advantage of staying current.

Invest in Infrastructure

In the world today, there’s more competition than ever. In order for a business to be successful, they must be able to quickly react to situations. Taking advantage of new technology to get a competitive advantage and having systems work smarter. Investing in infrastructure now allows us to take advantage of an opportunity when it arises. Businesses don’t have the luxury of time to react, therefore an infrastructure that is stable and able to quickly expand and scale is needed. These are some of the reasons companies place IBM i at the heart of their business computing. Even with the best foundation, we can’t rest on our laurels; staying up to date with hardware, software, personnel and training is an ongoing requirement. By investing in those four pillars of your organization, a company will position itself to leverage their investment and succeed.    

I don’t know where to start. I could tell you the stories that I encounter every day of people not keeping current and the problems that they have. Luckily, there are more people who are current than are way behind. However, when we look at the companies with the most problems, there is a high percentage who haven’t kept up to date. 

Let’s make one point very clear, it’s very easy to maintain proper standards for your infrastructure. Upgrade paths from POWER8® to POWER9™, or from IBM i 7.2 to 7.3 or 7.4 are established and well documented, not even very difficult. What is hard is when there was no diligence for 10 years and then the need to be on a current release becomes emergent. I think it’s also a disservice to your business to stay on old hardware, or an old release of the OS. When something goes wrong, and it inevitably will, the problems compound. It’s so much harder to get support, a fix, or upgrade to a current release when any of your components are out of support. Failure to upgrade and resulting issues tend to be noticed by the entire organization.

The Importance of Upgrading

Just because it is working, doesn’t mean that you have the right solution. Recently, I was working with a growing client running a POWER6™ machine on IBM i 7.1. As they added work to the machine, they were getting buried with I/O. The machine matched their needs when they purchased it, however as the business grew more disk, memory, and performance (CPU) were needed. We proposed a POWER9™ machine with an IBM Storwize® V5030E, which would have about 10x the performance at a much lower price. 

The reason improvements weren’t made in the past was due to the 24-7 requirements of their shop. The organization felt they couldn’t afford downtime. I think they were a little intimidated by upgrading since they hadn’t done so before. Now it was past time and the system was so far behind. They had continued struggling with a machine that had been outgrown, using technology that was 10 years old, and were utilizing unsupported hardware and software. I didn’t want to rock the boat to their upper management, but I wondered if strategic decision makers even knew the risks the company faced. As we all realize, this exposure was considerable. 

When the company executives came to the IT Director requiring more processing, the outage needed for system improvement was communicated and at that point upper management agreed to downtime. Since they were on a POWER6 machine, there was no OS release that was compatible between a POWER6 and a POWER9 and many concerns were identified. Issues included the release of Java™ between the two OSes and old tape drives unable to write tapes readable via new and faster tape drives required for the POWER9.

Additionally, when we got to the POWER9 and the SAN we were going to be doing encryption at rest for their data utilizing flash copy. This would allow them to minimize downtime each night and still perform a full system backup. Look at what they were missing by not being current. This is why staying on a release (be it hardware or software in this case) beyond the shelf life recommended by IBM, best practices and industry recommendations is problematic. Companies need the enhanced functionality that is continually available via TRs and stagnation makes updating much more complicated. The issues encountered weren’t insurmountable; more planning, testing and some intermediary steps were necessary for success. 

The Simplicity of Staying Current

Let’s say that the same company upgraded four years ago to a POWER8® server running IBM i 7.2. That would have been an easy upgrade. Now they would be coming from POWER8 at IBM i 7.2 to a POWER9 at IBM i 7.4. Piece of cake. We literally could have plugged the SAN into the POWER8 and moved the data from internal disk to the SAN, all while the system was still active. At some point we would need a 30 minute outage to copy the load source and they would have been on the SAN getting amazing performance. Next, when another short window was available, we would pull the Fibre cards from the POWER8 and insert them into the POWER9. Thirty minutes later everything be up and running on the new POWER9. It’s not magic, it’s simply staying current. You can’t move forward until you catch up once you have fallen behind.

It’s easier to take two little steps forward than one giant leap forward, especially if you aren’t used to doing upgrades since IBM 7.1 to 7.4 isn’t a supported OS upgrade path. Another customer wanted to install internal NVMe on their POWER9 machine and since they were on the latest release, it was quite simple and quickly rewarded them with amazing performance. In this case, they were another growing business with nighttime batch performance taking longer than they could afford. As a POWER9 with IBM i 7.4 was already running, all they needed was installation of new NVMe modules to instantly take advantage of better performance. Would you rather be quick and nimble or move at the speed of the cartoon character Deputy Dawg?  

In the last two years, my company has helped with over 700 OS upgrades. None of them were a problem because we did the preparation and research while following best practices. We follow an established and proven plan. We don’t go from IBM i 5.4 to 7.4 in one leap; we take steady measured steps. Doing otherwise puts your business at risk; there is a reason multi-level jumps in upgrading isn’t supported and is not recommended by those in the trenches. It doesn’t work. The approved standard is upgrading every two years to the latest OS release. By doing this, organizations would never risk a leap of faith and suffer a complicated update procedure while under business pressure to deliver functionality now required. 

As for TRs, a regular cadence holds true and these should be applied every six months when IBM releases them. Even updating once a year is better than nothing. And, while we are on the subject, don’t neglect your Hardware Management Console (HMC) or Flexible Service Processor (FSP). We frequently have people call us and say they can’t connect to the HMC suddenly. I ask them when the last time the HMC was upgraded, and the answer is inevitably “never” or “it’s been a while.” Had the HMC been updated every year, the process would be easy, and connectivity never would have been an issue. Problems are easier to prevent than solve. 

Overcoming Apprehension

Another scenario endemic is companies upgrading Windows infrastructure while neglecting the IBM i operating system. Frequently, this is caused by concerns regarding the business load on the Power Systems infrastructure and fear of upsetting continuity and stability. Going to my earlier comment, issues can be noticeable across the organization if there are problems due to the mission-critical applications being run. 

Apprehension is understandable and surmountable; follow the manuals and directions, read the documentation carefully, and routine upgrades are easy. If you feel you need more training to boost your confidence, I’ll be teaching “How to successfully upgrade to IBM i 7.3 and 7.4” at both IBM Systems Technical Universities in Atlantic City this fall and POWERUp 2020 in Tampa at the end of August. 

Here’s a frequent scenario: a client has Windows shares to IBM i, new Windows updates are rolled out on schedule, then there is a problem with a file share. Sure, their Windows clients might be using SMBv3 for this, but their old release of IBM i is still using SMBv1 or SMBv2. By remaining current with TRs and OS enhancements, the newer protocols would be supported by default. All IT design works in concert with multiple components these days, therefore companies can’t upgrade one without the other.

Upgrade to Enhance Security

Even more importantly, security in this day and age is paramount. Everyone needs to have the latest and greatest of everything to stay one step ahead of the hackers. Why put your organization at risk or make it easier for ransomware to attack your system? Everything in your environment that keeps things secure, working smarter, better, and faster must be maintained and implemented. The new releases of IBM i have so much more security built in, plus are using the latest versions of Java, ciphers, encryption protocols and sharing protocols. Staying behind doesn’t keep you at the status quo, it actually results in moving backwards by staying still. Additionally, look at things like row and column access control put into the database; if you aren’t upgrading you don’t get to take advantage of these new features. IBM is baking in needed tools our systems can use innately.

Let’s talk about continuous availability with IBM Db2® Mirror for i, which gives continuous availability. This can help so many shops who need to always be up. Yet if you aren’t upgrading to the latest release, you can’t even take advantage of this new licensed product. Today, IBM will make this available to so many more shops as they announce this functionally can be used with internal disk. If your business needs to be available 24-7, with no time for an outage, then you should be looking into this. If you have been keeping up with OS releases, then you are already positioned to leverage this feature should your company wish to purchase. I am frequently asked, “what release should I upgrade to?” I tell them, if you can, get to the latest release, if you can’t, at least get to a supported release. Your organization and your professionalism require the security and stability inherent in remaining current.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, let me give you further examples. Let’s say I am running a POWER7® with two licenses of IBM i, which is about 14,200 CPW. If I get a new POWER9 with just one license of IBM i (depending on if it is a 6 or 8 core machine), this would deliver between 13,083 and 15,313 CPW. I could decrease the number of licenses by upgrading to a newer machine and save the transfer cost of one license to the new machine plus one version of Software Maintenance (SWMA). Since the new machine would come with three years of warranty on the hardware, the above could reasonably justify the acquisition price of the machine. That is a win-win for the business since for the same price or less your running on new hardware, plus you are positioned for the latest software updates as they are released, such as being ready for what we are currently calling iNext on POWER9 when it becomes available. This can’t be done on old hardware.

Lastly, almost every customer pays for SWMA. You are entitled to unlimited support including every release throughout your maintenance period. Why would you not take advantage of what you pay for? Don’t waste money and lose out on the enhancements your organization can utilize. 

The Request for Enhancement Process

I said in the beginning of the article that I wasn’t going to talk about the new features and functions being announced today. Well, there is one feature that is coming out in the TR today that I am really excited about (as well as directly responsible for). A while ago, I put in a Request for Enhancement (RFE) saying I wanted to share a tape library between IBM i partitions while using IBM i hosting IBM i. At that time, we could share a tape drive between partitions without moving the adapter from the hosting partition, however we couldn’t share a tape library. 

IBM accepted the RFE, and this is part of the latest TR being announced today. Any client can do this, and I encourage you to put your requests in. I will tell you IBM listens to our community’s needs and delivers them with new TRs and OS release features. I was part of the beta team testing this out and I can attest it works. 

Today, there will be quite a lot of information on what’s in the new TR from many sources—but I wanted to talk specifically about the importance of staying current on your hardware and software. Basically, it comes down to the position you are in when on new technology and your ability to take advantage of the business computing assets you have invested in. In fact, I would say it’s your job and responsibility to stay at or near the current release. So, after reading about all the cool new functions and features that are announced today, start to make plans on how and when you are going to install them to take advantage.


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